Pascal’s Wager: A Pragmatic Argument for Belief in God

Author: Liz Jackson
Categories: Philosophy of Religion, Epistemology, or Theory of Knowledge, Historical Philosophy, Logic and Reasoning
Word Count: 996

Should you believe there’s a God?

To answer this, we might examine arguments for theism—like first-cause and design arguments—and arguments for atheism—like arguments from evil. These arguments offer evidence for and against God’s existence.[1]

Pascal’s wager, originally proposed by Blaise Pascal (1623–1662), takes a more pragmatic approach. Pascal thought that evidence cannot settle the question of whether God exists, so he proposes that you should bet, or wager, on God because of what’s at stake: you have lots to gain and not much to lose.[2]

This article explains Pascal’s wager and considers three objections.Pascal's wager image: person praying in front of a pile of poker chips.

1.The Basic Argument

The basic form of the wager goes like this:

If God exists and I believe in God, I’ll go to heaven, which is infinitely good. If God exists and I don’t believe in God, I may go to hell, which is infinitely bad. If God does not exist, then whether I believe in God or not, whatever I’d gain or lose would be finite. So, I should believe in God.

The argument depends on the expected value of believing in God, which we use to make a decision if we’re not certain whether God exists.[3] This decision matrix illustrates the argument:

Basic decision matrix for Pascal's Wager.
Basic decision matrix for Pascal’s Wager.

Even if the chance of God existing is small, as long as it is greater than zero, the expected value of believing is infinite. Combining the chart’s values with the assumption that we should pick the action with the highest expected value yields Pascal’s Wager.

While the Wager has its advocates, there are many objections. Let’s review some of the most important.

2. The Many-Gods Objection

An initial objection is that Pascal’s wager is too simplistic. There are many religions, and believing in the God of one religion might prevent gaining the infinite rewards of another religion.

To see this, let’s consider just adding two religions—Christianity and Islam—to our decision matrix. Assuming the probabilities of Christianity, Islam, and atheism are greater than zero, we get confusing expected values. This is called the “many-gods” objection, illustrated by this decision matrix:

Decision matrix for Pascal's Wager for the "Many Gods" objection.
Decision matrix for the “Many Gods” objection.

Apparently, Pascal’s wager doesn’t give us a reason to pick one religion over another, since Christianity and Islam both have the same expected value.

You might think the decision matrix tells us that believing either religion is a better bet than believing atheism. However, there’s a possibility—even if unlikely—that atheists go to heaven and theists go to hell. As long as we don’t assign this probability 0, then atheism isn’t a worse bet than believing a religion. Thus, all options seem to have the same expected value.[4]

A common response to the many-gods objection can be summarized in two words: probability matters. It matters even when dealing with infinite values.

To see why, imagine you’re given the choice between a 90% chance at an infinite good or a 10% chance at the same good. You should clearly take the 90% chance. When we apply this to Pascal’s wager, the result is that you should wager for the religion you think is most likely to be true. Christianity and Islam actually do not have the same expected value—wagering on the more probable religion gives you a higher chance at an infinite good, and so has a higher expected value. Further, since it’s unlikely that atheists and agnostics (agnostics suspend judgment on whether God exists) go to heaven and theists go to hell, Pascal’s wager implies it’s irrational to be an atheist or agnostic.[5]

3. The Impossibility Objection

A second objection is that wagering is impossible, because we can’t form beliefs simply for their benefits: if I offer you $1,000,000 to believe that 1+1=3, you probably still can’t believe it. Most philosophers reject doxastic voluntarism, the view that we can directly control our beliefs.[6]

In response, whether God exists isn’t obviously true or false (unlike 1+1=3), so some argue that you have more control over your religious beliefs. This might be indirect control, like the control you could exercise over your political beliefs by changing the news sources you read.

A second response—which Pascal himself favored—frames the wager in terms of action, rather than belief. The wager gives you a reason to commit to God—by going to church, praying, and immersing yourself in a religious community—rather than trying to directly believe in God.[7]

4. The Irrationality Objection

Even if it’s possible to take Pascal’s wager, that doesn’t guarantee that the beliefs formed from wagering would be rational, at least from an evidential point of view. It seems like forming a belief on the basis of a wager would violate evidentialism, the view that we should proportion our beliefs to the evidence. We should believe because of evidence, not because a belief is beneficial.[8]

In response, if your evidence for theism is permissive—meaning you could be rational as a theist, atheist, or agnostic—you can take Pascal’s wager and still respect evidentialism. This is because more than one belief-attitude fits your evidence.[9]

Also, we can again make the wager about a commitment to God, rather than about belief. Since evidentialism applies to belief and not action, you could then take the wager without violating evidentialism.

5. Conclusion

We’ve discussed the basic version of Pascal’s wager and examined three objections. The wager is unique because it leads us to consider many kinds of reasons for belief, including evidence, arguments, risks, and rewards. More specifically, even if the arguments that God exists aren’t successful, it’s interesting to consider whether we’d have a reason to believe in God anyway.[10]

Notes

[1] For an introduction to some of these arguments see Leibniz’s Principle of Sufficient Reason by Marc Bobro, The Fine-Tuning Argument for the Existence of God by Thomas Metcalf and The Problem of Evil by Thomas Metcalf, as well as other arguments for and against the existence of God in the Philosophy of Religion essay category. There are also other potential sources of evidence for God that don’t come in the form of arguments, e.g. evidence from religious experiences.

Pascal’s Wager differs from these approaches. Instead of focusing on whether it is true or false that God exists, the wager concerns whether belief in God is beneficial, or pragmatic, for the believer. Thus, the Wager is called a “pragmatic” argument, in contrast to what might be called an “evidential” argument. 

[2] For the original version of the wager, see Pascal (1662). Pascal’s Wager generally presumes a common concept of God that is reviewed in Attributes of God by Bailie Peterson.

[3] Generally, we appeal to the expected value of actions when we don’t have certainty about the relevant probabilities. If we had certainty, we could calculate the actual value of each action; this approach tells us how to act rationally in the face of uncertainty. Therefore, Pascal’s expected value reasoning applies to anyone who is not 100% certain that God exists or 100% certain that God doesn’t exist. For an application of the concept of expected value to voting, see Ethics and the Expected Consequences of Voting by Thomas Metcalf.

[4] For more on this objection, see Mougin and Sober (1994).

[5] See Jackson and Rogers (2019) for development of this argument.

[6] See Alston (1988) for an argument against doxastic voluntarism.

[7] See Rota (2016) for a contemporary version of the wager that focuses on making a commitment to God.

[8] See Conee and Feldman (2004) for an explanation and defense of evidentialism.

[9] For more on permissivism, the view that one more than attitude can be rational, given a body of evidence, see Titelbaum and Kopec (2016). Permissivism doesn’t mean that more than one attitude fits your evidence in every case. Sometimes attitudes (like believing 1+1=2) are rationally required by our evidence; however, our evidence for some matters (like God’s existence) is harder to assess. See James (1896) for a pragmatic argument for belief in God that appeals to permissivism.

[10] For more on Pascal’s Wager, see Hájek (2018).

References

Alston, W. (1988). “The Deontological Conception of Epistemic Justification.” Philosophical Perspectives 2: 257–299.

Conee, E. & R. Feldman. (2004). Evidentialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hájek, Alan, “Pascal’s Wager”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2018/entries/pascal-wager/>.

Jackson, E. and A. Rogers. (2019). “Salvaging Pascal’s Wager.” Philosophia Christi 21 (1): 59–84.

James, W. (1896/1979). “The Will to Believe.” In The Will to Believe and Other Essays (F. Burkhardt et al., eds.), pp. 2–32. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kopec, M. and M. Titelbaum. (2016). “The Uniqueness Thesis.” Philosophy Compass 11(4): 189–200.

Mougin, G., and E. Sober. (1994). “Betting Against Pascal’s Wager.” Noûs 28: 382–95.

Pascal, B. (1662/1958). Pensees, trans. William Trotter. New York: J. M. Dent Co., fragments 233–241.

Rota, M. (2016). Taking Pascal’s Wager. Intervarsity Press.

For Further Exploration

Jordan, Jeff, “Pragmatic Arguments and Belief in God”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2018 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2018/entries/pragmatic-belief-god/>.

Jackson, Liz (video), “Answering the Most Challenging Objections to Pascal’s Wager”.

Jackson, Liz (video), “Philosophers on Pascal’s Wager”.

Jackson, Liz (video), “Evidentialism: What Should We Believe?”.

Jackson, Liz (video), “Pascal’s Wager: A Very Basic Introduction”.

Related Essays

Attributes of God by Bailie Peterson

Leibniz’s Principle of Sufficient Reason by Marc Bobro

The Fine-Tuning Argument for the Existence of God by Thomas Metcalf

The Problem of Evil by Thomas Metcalf

Introduction to the Probability Calculus by Thomas Metcalf

Epistemology, or Theory of Knowledge by Thomas Metcalf

The Epistemology of Disagreement by Jonathan Matheson

Is Immortality Desirable? by Felipe Pereira

Hell and Universalism by A.G. Holdier

Hope by Michael Milona & Katie Stockdale

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About the Author

Liz Jackson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Ryerson University. She completed her PhD in philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. Her main philosophical interests are in epistemology and philosophy of religion. Liz-Jackson.com and https://www.youtube.com/user/lizjackson111

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